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Big Swallow, The (1901)


Main image of Big Swallow, The (1901)
35mm, black and white, silent, 75 feet
DirectorJames Williamson
Production CompanyWilliamson Kinematograph Company

Cast: Sam Dalton

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A man, irritated by the presence of a photographer, solves his dilemma by swallowing him and his camera whole.

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James Williamson seems to have been less bitten by the trick-film bug than his contemporaries G.A. Smith, R.W. Paul and W.R. Booth, but he made one of the most striking genre entries in The Big Swallow (1901), which makes imaginative use of an extreme close-up to create one of the seminal images of early British (and world) cinema, as effective in its way as the slashed eyeball of Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929, d. Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí), and of just as much appeal to the Surrealist movement.

Fellow South Coast pioneer G.A. Smith had already produced films featuring extreme close-up photography (surviving examples including Grandma's Reading Glass and Spiders on a Web, both 1900), but Williamson took the concept a stage further by featuring a man advancing towards the camera, remaining in more or less perfect focus until his mouth appears to swallow the lens. Williamson then cuts to the photographer apparently disappearing into a black void, and then back to the man who, according to his catalogue, "retires munching him up and expressing great satisfaction".

Although Williamson's purpose was primarily comic (and doubtless inspired by unwanted attention from increasingly savvy passers-by while filming his actuality shorts), The Big Swallow is also one of the most important early British films in that it was one of the first to deliberately exploit the contrast between the eye of the camera and of the audience watching the final film. The film might have been still more effective if Williamson had omitted the second and third shots altogether, since they detract from the logical purity of the first, ending on a completely blank screen as the swallowed camera is no longer able to function as a surrogate for the audience's point of view.

The swallower of the title is played by Sam Dalton, a professional comedian who appeared in a number of Williamson's films (including Are You There? and The Magic Extinguisher, both 1901).

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers'. It is also featured in full as part of 'How They Laughed', Paul Merton's interactive guide to early British silent comedy. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:08)
Production stills
Are You There? (1901)
Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)
Magic Extinguisher, The (1901)
Puzzled Bather and his Animated Clothes, The (1901)
Spiders on a Web (1900)
Williamson, James (1855-1933)
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